What follows is a painful post that appeared on the Reform Rabbi List serve (Ravkav) written by Marra B. Gad about her experience as a bi-racial or mixed race Jewish woman and an invited presenter at the recent Union for Reform Judaism Biennial in Chicago. 5000 Reform Jews convened from across America, Canada, Israel, and the world. Marra granted me permission to print her experience on this blog.
Marra’s treatment by some Jews at the Conference because she is mixed race is appalling and disheartening. Despite the Reform movement-wide effort over a number of years to welcome Jews of color into Reform congregations, camps, and Reform organizations, some Reform Jews remain plagued by deep-seated racist bias and Ashkenazic ethno-centrism.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, spoke about the importance of welcoming Jews of color in his Biennial presidential address. Subsequently, he learned that Marra had been blatantly mistreated and insulted as a Jew. He spoke with Marra and then made a strong public apology to her and by extension to all Jews of color, estimated as 15 percent of the American Jewish community. Rabbi Jacobs called upon our movement as a whole to stress civility, inclusion, and equality of a wide diversity of Jews.
I met Marra at my synagogue two years ago when a mutual friend (Rabbi Josh Weinberg) referred her to me. Marra told me that since leaving Chicago she has felt accepted only in her home synagogue and has been treated badly by some white congregants and rabbis in many synagogues she has attended. For example, she relayed a story of a family bar mitzvah in which she received an aliyah. Hebrew proficient, Marra’s Jewish identity was questioned by the officiating Reform rabbi. Marra assured him that she was not only Jewish but knew what she was doing on the bimah. He expressed his surprise when she fluently chanted the Torah blessings.
Marra’s heart-breaking experience at the URJ Biennial in Chicago in mid-December follows here:
“Friends, with another Shabbat about to begin, I’d like to share some thoughts – as I promised I would – about how I’m feeling after my final speaking engagement of 2019. This is going to be a long post, so please settle in if you choose to read it. Obviously, I hope that you will.
For those of you who are not aware, one week ago, I arrived at the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial Conference in Chicago, and from moment one, things did not go as any of us had hoped they would.
When I went to pick up my credentials, I was told that the “REAL” Marra Gad needed to pick up her badge. And when I replied that I was the real Marra Gad, I did not receive an apology. Instead, the person behind the desk said, “Really!?”
When I was eventually given my very bright orange badge that clearly said PRESENTER across the bottom…. I was assumed to be hotel staff. Twice. While wearing my bright orange badge. And told that I needed to do more to get room service orders out more quickly. I was aggressively asked repeatedly WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE? And when I would reply that I was a featured speaker on Shabbat afternoon, I was then asked what I could possibly have to speak about.
I ended up in an elevator filled with attendees who elected to whisper about me. What I was doing there. And, again, what I could possibly be presenting about. LIKE I WASN’T THERE. Stared at. Confronted. Whispered about. And assumed to work for the hotel….It all grew so uncomfortable for me to be out with the general population that I had to be escorted from place to place by URJ staff (to whom I remain profoundly grateful), who saw for themselves the looks that I received simply being in the hallways. When others were at Shabbat services….or dinner….or song session…I was in my hotel room alone. Crying. Because I did not feel comfortable and safe being out with my own people.
I shared these stories during my session, and while most people asked very thoughtful questions and were empathic and supportive, as a final moment, a woman chose to interrupt the discussion to forcefully demand to share what she had been thinking about the entire hour. And she used her time to turn everything around on me, stating clearly, offensively and without apology that I could have made it all better for myself if I had chosen to confront the people in the elevator and EXPLAIN MYSELF. Create comfort for them. I should have made it a “teachable moment” and taught them that I was Jewish. Now, with some days behind us, I’m receiving messages from truly big hearted, well intentioned people asking if…. Rest has helped me “put it behind me.”
If the many loving messages I have received “erased what happened.” Saying that I will hopefully heal “quickly” because we have work to do. I have received private messages suggesting that the woman who believed that it was my job to have done better with the horrible people that I encountered was simply being ignorant. And that she just “didn’t understand” and perhaps I shouldn’t be so outraged.
And all of this further upset me. A lot. To spend time swimming in this level of racism, intolerance and aggression was traumatic for me. To see me be attacked in the room was traumatic for my family. And it felt like people just didn’t understand how tremendously painful all of this really was.
And then, 2 of my trusted friends with whom I was discussing all of this and who also happen to be rabbis, suggested that most people really don’t understand what the experiences at Biennial felt like for me. Because they cannot. Because it would not happen to them. Because they are white. And I am not. And for a moment, that made sense.
But, as I continue to consider the question, I would offer that Jews should absolutely understand because of what it feels like to be on the receiving end of anti-Semitism. Racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, anti OTHER ism…. they are all abuses of the soul. And to be on the receiving end of it is a trauma. And it is a trauma that Jews know very well.
Jews know what it feels like to be stared at. Whispered about. Not made to feel welcome. To feel unsafe. If someone aggressively says that we Jews can do better in the face of anti-Semitism and puts it back on us – which, as we know, happens – we are OUTRAGED. We don’t chalk it up to them not understanding and let that soften the experience for us.
We know that rest does not make anti-Semitism better. Nor does it with racism. We do not rest and put anti-Semitism behind us. Ever. Nor should we with racism. That while the amazing loving messages that are received after anti-Semitic attacks are wonderful, they do not erase the incidents because nothing can or will. It works the same way with racism. And that, while I WILL heal…these experiences have been added to the already large canon of stories that I carry as a part of my human experience. They will never go away. And I carry tales of anti-Semitism AND racism in my personal library every day.
I will live with the memory of what took place for the rest of my life as will my family. I hope that everyone who was there will do the same. With my whole heart, I hope that we will NOT try to put this behind us. I hope that we will continue to talk about it and to use this moment for good.
I am here to continue to talk about it and hope that you will all continue to reach out. I simply ask that you consider what I’ve shared here as you consider what you’re going to say. I believe that there is much good to come from this. And I, for one, am committed to bringing it beautifully to life.
Shabbat Shalom…thank you for taking the time to read this and for the words of love and support that I continue to receive…and much love to each of you.”
Marra B. Gad lives in Los Angeles and is a film and television producer. Her memoir, THE COLOR OF LOVE: A Story of a Mixed-Race Jewish Girl, was published by Agate Publishing in November 2019.
Marra was born in New York and raised in Chicago. A child of the Reform movement, she grew up in the 1970’s at Emanuel Congregation in Chicago, and is an alumna of OSRUI and CFTY/NFTY-CAR. Marra is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (’89) and holds an MA in Modern Jewish History from Baltimore Hebrew Institute at Towson University (’97).